OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

Extension seafood specialist helps with new products, processes

01/18/2012

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Oregon’s seafood industry is getting a boost from a new line of products and innovative packaging processes that are being created with the help of the Oregon State University Extension program – and these new initiatives also are creating jobs.

Mark Whitham, a seafood specialist with Oregon Sea Grant Extension, has worked with two canning facilities in Oregon and consulted on a third.

In early 2010, Mike Babcock, a former lumber mill owner, started Oregon Seafoods as a small canning company in Coos Bay. Babcock started investigating “retort pouches” as a way to can West Coast albacore tuna and offer a lightweight alternative to traditional steel cans. He contacted Whitham, a seafood product development specialist who has a master’s degree in food science from OSU and has worked in food processing for more than 30 years.

Whitham first helped Babcock set up his retort canning operation in summer of 2010, and later helped him develop a line of albacore tuna that included four flavors: sea salt, salt-free, smoked and jalapeno-infused. The flavors and packaging were tested at the OSU Food Innovation Center in Portland, and this fall Babcock began shipping packaged albacore to Oregon grocery stores under the brand Sea Fare Pacific.

“At the moment we are in about 15 stores in Oregon,” said Babcock. “And we are adding to that list weekly.”

All eight Market of Choice locations carry Sea Fare Pacific tuna. The entrepreneur said he likes having his product packaged and sold locally. “There is a tremendous amount of [West Coast] albacore that goes to Canada, Thailand and Spain, and most of that doesn’t get processed here with U.S. labor,” said Babcock. “We are trying to change that.”

Babcock’s facility has six full-time employees along with several contract workers during the busy fishing season. “We are going to continue to add to that number as our market share increases," said Babcock. 

Whitham said part of the appeal of Oregon Seafoods’ tuna is the processing and packaging he helped them develop.

“Most store-bought tuna is twice cooked – that means they cook all the nutrients and flavor out of it,” said Whitham. “Our product is cooked once and it retains all the good fats, juices and nutrients, and it tastes much better.”

Whitham, who started with Oregon Sea Grant Extension in 2005, is also helping Stan Egaas, owner of the Berry Patch Restaurant in Westport, Ore., set up a retort canning facility. Egaas said he plans to sell a series of packaged soups starting spring 2012.

Egaas and Whitham are developing recipes for razor clam chowder, salmon chowder, and chanterelle mushroom soup and gravy. Egaas said he is targeting high-end grocery stores to sell his soups and gravy, and he hopes to have three to four employees working either full- or part-time at the facility by summer 2012.

"If it goes well,” said Egaas, “we can thank Mark [Whitham] for the quality of the product. His expertise in this has been invaluable."

Whitham is also working with the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs on planning a packaging facility. Ron Suppah, vice chairman of the Warm Springs’ tribal council, said the tribes were losing as much as 20 percent of their salmon to freezer burn each year. Looking for a solution, Suppah was introduced to Whitham through a contact at the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.

Suppah and other Warm Springs members took three trips to the seafood development laboratory at the OSU Experiment Station in Astoria to learn from Witham about advanced preservation methods. Impressed by what they saw, Suppah said, he and others decided to build a facility that employed Whitham’s techniques.

The proposed Warm Springs facility will use retort pouches to preserve traditional foods such as elk and venison as well as berries and roots. Suppah said the tribe is also considering packaging its valuable Chinook salmon for sale off the reservation.

Once up and running the facility could add as many as 18 jobs on the reservation, said Suppah.

"The unemployment rate on the reservation is really bad,” he said, “so the tribes need to seek opportunities to develop work for our tribal members."

Whitham has worked with tribal members on a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to fund a feasibility study for the proposed facility. “I want to add value to their salmon catch and hopefully create additional jobs and opportunities for them in the future,” he said.